I like to style myself a literary omnivore, but one genre I’ll admit I seldom touch is biography. I’ve read one on Robert E. Lee, and back in high school and college I read some biographies of various rock bands, but I preferred those that focused primarily on their music and secondarily on the musicians’ personal lives. A recent review, of The Printed Homer, included some biographical speculation, but ultimately one can’t really write a biography of a man about whom we know so little for certain that we’re not even sure if he was one dude or multiple dudes.
Marco Santagata stands on firmer ground in his biography of Dante Alighieri (translated from Italian by Richard Dixon), titled simply Dante: The Story of His Life, though he did run into some difficulties of his own. Typically I like to start reviews on a positive note, but any biography of Dante will have two significant problems to deal with, and though Santagata’s book is quite good overall one does need to be aware of them.
First, Dante’s life is inextricably tied up with Florentine politics. Readers of his Divine Comedy will undoubtedly have noticed how many contemporary political figures appear, and multiple works after La Vita Nuova, such as Convivio and Monarchia, at least touch on political theory or practice in some way. This means that a huge portion of Santagata’s book is spent discussing the ins and outs of Florentine political theatre and that of Italy more broadly. For those keenly interested in Italian history or who are just political junkies this won’t be a problem at all, but anyone expecting a sort of “real life novel” style of biography will find themselves skimming pages at a time of explanations of shifting alliances, ideologies, and political manoeuvring.
Second, there are large gaps in what we know about Dante. Obviously, there’s enough for Santagata to write a few hundred pages about him, but he must frequently qualify even matters of fact like where Dante was living at a given time, or when a particular event happen, with “probably,” “likely,” “must have,” etc. For example, we aren’t completely sure how many children Dante had; at least three, but maybe four. As another example, we don’t know how Dante was educated because not only is there almost no information about his childhood, we don’t even know what a typical education looked like in Florence because there is no documentation of it.
When Dante went into exile, since he was a condemned man in Florence he could not travel freely around Italy because, as Santagata explains, “he no longer enjoyed the protection of Florence. He could be killed legitimately, and therefore with impunity, by anyone.” So how did Dante manage to travel between cities?
These considerations give credence to the idea that, in exchange for hospitality and maybe some gratuity, Dante might have carried out some occasional services for the Della Scala family. If, among these services, there had been some diplomatic assignment, this would then explain how, equipped with a safe-conduct, he could have moved freely around the region.
Note the “might have” in that paragraph.
Fortunately, Santagata handles these obstacles well. His descriptions of Italy’s political scene are clear and the tedium is kept to a minimum. He also makes clear where in the biography he’s writing on solid ground, when he’s speculating, and when there’s just not any good information available. Those who really like to dig deeply in their history (and check that the author isn’t BSing them) will be pleased to find a substantial number of citations and a bibliography.
One thing I do appreciate about Santagata is that he ties Dante’s literary output in with the biography often, and uses his writings and his life to illuminate each other. This is partly of necessity, since all of Dante’s work has at least some element of autobiography, but the author does a fine job both as a historian and literary analyst when called for. For example, here he explains the circumstances that prompted Dante to write De vulgari eloquentia while travelling between cities:
Dante realizes that the Italian ruling classes have no common language. In the past it had been Latin, but now he has to admit – and as author of elaborate diplomatic letters written on behalf of the Coalition of the Whites, he was well aware of it – that “princes, barons, knights, and many other noble people” are people who “speak the vernacular, are not learned”; they know no Latin. From being a language of communication for the upper classes, Latin had become a specialist language, the prerogative of university academics and the higher professional ranks. For these cultural elites, whom Dante identifies as “lawyers, doctors, and almost all clerics” (Conv. III XI 10[…]), the purpose of learning Latin is not the pursuit of individual “happiness” and the common good, but that of advantage and gain […]. In short, the direction that high culture was taking through the university system was of no use for rebuilding a common fabric for the scattered Italian nobility.
One thing I’d wondered about before reading this book was what Dante’s financial situation was like after his exile from Florence. Santagata confirms that as of 1304, and likely much of the rest of his life, that he did not have a regular income, and keep in mind that all of his property was stuck in Florence. The author points to a letter of condolence written around April 1304 to Oberto and Guido di Aghinolfo di Romena on the death of their uncle, to whom they were heirs. His letter begins by praising Alessandro, however:
[T]he tone of the letter then changes: Dante apologizes to his interlocutors for not being abgle to take part in the funeral service for their kinsman. His absence is due neither to “negligence” nor “ingratitude” but to the poverty to which his condition of exile has reduced him, and which prevents him from owning “arms and horses” with which to travel or even from being presentable at a funeral procession. He is certainly trying to release himself from the slavery into which “merciless” misfortune has cast him, but his efforts until now have come to nothing. In expressing once again his loyalty to his patrons, Dante asks for some practical help to relieve his state of poverty.
After one more comment, Santagata adds, “The Guidi gave him no help, and Dante would not forgive this lack of kindness.” He then relates these events to Canto XXX of the Inferno.
Now, I don’t know Italian and don’t have a copy of the original Italian edition of The Story of His Life so I can’t comment on the accuracy of Dixon’s translation. I can say that the resulting English is natural enough that I probably wouldn’t have noticed it was a translation if I didn’t already know going in to the book.
One final question to ask is how necessary it is to read a biography of Dante to understand his work. For the large majority of readers, it’s not. Most editions of Dante’s poetry and non-fiction writing will include enough supplementary material in an introduction and annotations to provide any helpful context. So, books like this will primarily be of interest to those who want to know as much about the great Florentine as possible. If the two caveats have you hesitant about Santagata’s in particular it may be worth looking for a shorter biography, but keep in mind that these obstacles will necessarily be present in any remotely detailed account of Dante’s life.